Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy encapsulates the way love feels in a way few films can match. Twenty years in the making, the story of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) follows the beginning (“Before Sunrise,” 1995), re-beginning (“Before Sunset,” 2004), and eventual strain (“Before Midnight,” 2013) of one relationship. And the Criterion Collection has released a 2K restoration of the three films, along with hours of bonus features and behind-the-scenes footage.
Linklater wrote all three films with the stars of his trilogy. In honor of its Criterion release, IndieWire has assembled this guide to the collaborative production in the words of the people who brought it to life.
The Writing Process Was the Biggest Challenge
Linklater collaborated with his two leads to develop the characters over the course of several years. It was a meticulous process that required many workshop sessions. But don’t assume for a minute that the actors were improvising on set.
Richard Linklater, Fresh Air (NPR), 2013: “I’m very interested in the reality of these actors on the screen, so I know you can’t just say lines that are written by someone else. The script, the text, has to work its way through the person, and so by having Julie and Ethan kind of work with me in rewriting that script, and personalizing it and demanding they give a lot of themselves. I thought that was the only way that film could ultimately work the way I wanted it to. The script was really a first step, but for it to give the effect that I wanted, I was looking for the two most creative young actors to fill those shoes, because I knew what would be asked of them.”
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Ethan Hawke, Film Society of Lincoln Center, 2013: “If we write a bad line, or if the camera catches Julie and I acting, the whole thing falls apart. Because as soon as you see someone acting, as soon as you see drama, well, then you want a plot. But the mysterious thing he was going for was non-action.”
Linklater, Filmmaker Magazine, 2004: “We sat in a room and worked together in about a two- or three-day period, worked out a very detailed outline of the whole film in this sort of real-time environment. And then, over the next year or so, we just started e-mailing each other and faxing. I was sort of a conduit — they would send me monologues and dialogues and scenes and ideas, and I was editing, compiling and writing. And that’s how we came up with a script.”
Linklater, Vulture, 2013: “A lot of the things Celine is complaining about are things that Ethan and I have heard, directed at us in our relationships. I have this kind of feminine side, and Julie has a strong male personality, so she writes a lot of what Jesse will say. It’s always worked that way, although Ethan and Julie never write in character — it’s not like, ‘Okay, you be Jesse, and you be Celine.’ We’re three writers sitting in a room, and only later do we start rehearsing it in character.”
Linklater, Slant Magazine, 2013: “By the time something makes it into the movie, it’s been highly vetted through the three of us, and rewritten and polished. You’ve got to be tough in that phase. It’s a very ego-less process”
courtesy The Criterion Collection
This Was Never Intended to Be a Trilogy
Although we now take the ongoing tale of Céline and Jesse for granted, the first installment was originally intended as a standalone film. Then the pair surfaced as animated versions of themselves in a segment in Linklater’s 2001 rotoscopted film “Waking Life,” and something clicked.
Linklater, The Guardian, 2013: “The three of us come to this realization about the same time … usually five or six years after the last installment. We have no ideas for a long time, then it’s like, ‘You know what? I’m kind of feeling something.'”
Linklater, Filmmaker Magazine, 2004: “I think when they did their scene in “Waking Life,” that’s when we all sat down and said, ‘Okay, now definitely we have to do this.’ In an earlier form, it was much more of a traditional romantic comedy. It took place in four different locations, it was much more involved — a bigger-budget thing, probably about $8 or $10 million. And we couldn’t get financing. This was around 2000. So we totally reconceptualized it, and at that point Ethan, Julie and I had an idea to do what is the movie now. So Julie, Ethan, and I actually just wrote a completely new movie.”
Julie Delpy, Slant Magazine, 2013: “With the second film, no one was excited about us making it apart from me, Ethan, and Richard. People were like, ‘What the fuck?’ My agent at the time actually gently fired me because he thought I was actually crazy to be writing the sequel. He thought I was wasting my time and kind of being an idiot. He told me I was writing a sequel that would never be made, and even if it were made, no one would see it. We really had to believe in ourselves.”
Each Film Presents a Different Idea About Relationships
In the first film, Céline and Jesse meet for a one-night stand; the second film is informed by that experience, as the pair run into each other in Paris, after Jesse has written a book about the experience. In the third film, they’re a married couple with a child.
Linklater, Film Society of Lincoln Center, 2013: “The idea of the first film was two people connecting. In real life, that is a very verbal, conversational event. It was always going to be that. The first film was really about trying to capture the intangible thing between these two people. It was a very minimalist design. Nothing great happened in the movie other than this connection. I just remember wanting to make a film just about that.”
Delpy, Slant Magazine, 2013: “The first film was about connection and love at first sight, and the second film was about reconnecting. And those are two very romantic concepts.”
courtesy The Criterion Collection
Linklater, Filmmaker Magazine, 2004: [On the differences between “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset”]: “To me, the tone is different. The visual style is even more minimal. And in the first one there was a much greater time span, and they were actively seeking out Vienna. They had all that possibility and a lot of time to kill! That was at night, too, very romantic and full of mystery and possibility. This one was just the opposite. [“Before Sunset”] is daytime, they’ve both got earthly obligations. We’re in a town she lives in. We’re in a town he’s basically working in. He’s got real-life appointments. He’s got to leave for the airport in 80 minutes or so. So the tone of it is very real-worldy.
And because it’s this sort of document of real time, I wanted it to be like an eloquent documentary. I didn’t think handheld 16mm, I thought Steadicams. Eloquent, but with a certain realness. You have these long takes, long Steadicam shots following them unobtrusively. You know, in the first film the camera really commented on [the characters] and enhanced their feeling. I’d pull back, and you’d see them in the foreground with the opera house in the background. This was the opposite. I wanted it to seem like we were just following these people in as real a way as we could get and still seem like some kind of narrative fiction. I was just taking this idea that I’ve often worked from in movies: Make a documentary about characters acting out a fiction. It’s this Godard-ian idea from a long time ago.”
Delpy, Slant Magazine, 2013: “The third film [“Before Midnight”] shows a very different dynamic, and that was a real challenge: to find the romance and the excitement. The writing part of that was very tedious and precise, like sewing lace. It was always on a razor’s edge.”
Linklater, Vulture, 2013: “At this point, Celine and Jesse really know one another. When you’re in a relationship for this long, you get to know the other person and how they manipulate you to get what they want, you know how they fight, you know their strengths and weaknesses.”
Linklater, Vulture, 2013: “I think by sheer volume, Jesse and Celine’s hotel room fight [in ‘Before Midnight’] was the toughest scene to write. The whole film leads to it: From the very first scene in the movie, we’ve revealed a fault line in their relationship, and what we experience in the hotel room is the full maturation of the idea. This fight started years ago, and we’re just dropping in on this month’s version.”
Delpy, Slant Magazine, 2013: “We basically wrote a film within a film. The fight could kind of stand on its own in a way. It evolves from one thing into another. We had to really build a different kind of arc in those 30 minutes.”
Linklater, Vulture, 2013: “People have called this the fight scene, but my constant direction to Ethan and Julie while we were making it was, ‘This is a love scene.’ And it literally starts off that way: For several minutes, we’re about to have the first sex scene we’ve had over three movies with these two.”
There’s More Reality to These Stories Than Meets the Eye
Over the years, the actors have aged and experienced different stages of life that have informed their relationships to their characters — and, as a result, informed the way those characters have been conceived.
Hawke, Rolling Stone, 2013: “I love the notion of blurring the line between performer and performance … One of the ways to do that is to make it real for us. Some of the time, Jesse and Celine are born out of things Julie and I are going through. But Richard’s a big part of Jesse and Celine, too.”
Linklater, Slant Magazine, 2013: “Sometimes you’re contributing something you don’t realize you’re contributing. Like, I’ll tell Ethan about a dream I had where I was watching a movie, and he’ll transpose that into dialogue about a dream Jesse had where he was reading a book. Everything that’s going on in our lives can potentially find its way in. It’s a crazy, fun process.”
Delpy, Slant Magazine, 2013: “As for my own experiences, my idea of motherhood is very different from Céline’s, and my situation is very different from Céline’s, but I don’t think I could have written those specific things about motherhood without knowing what it’s like to be a mother.”
Linklater, The Guardian, 2013:“Like any three writers, things are both autobiographical and things you pick up from the world. It’s a personal reflection from all three of us, for sure. But whatever it is from our own lives, it’s going to be something different by the time it’s in our movie.”
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection